Editor's Plate: Swinging for the Fences

Three measures that new product development is alive and well.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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The past couple of years, the planets have aligned to make this May issue of Food Processing a deep dive into product development. Our cover story is our 42nd annual R&D Survey. Information Resources Inc. (IRI) publishes their annual list of New Product Pacesetters, the best-selling new products of 2012, just before we go to press. And with the Institute of Food Technologists' annual Meeting and Food Expo in early July, May becomes our issue to preview the IFT show.

All three are signs of the vitality of new product development in this business.

I liken the development of a new product to the birth of a baby. Both create excitement in everybody associated. Regardless of how they turn out down the road, on their inaugural birthdays they're endowed with optimism and unlimited potential. One could be the next president of the U.S. Or the next Coca-Cola. Everyone around will try to help them succeed.

One key difference between baby and new product is the number of people involved in inception, or conception. In the food and beverage processing world, there are many parents. From the largest global organizations down to the smallest outfits, it's a cross-functional team that brings a new product into this world. Our R&D Survey bears that out.

While R&D certainly quarterbacks the product development team, 64 percent of you say Marketing plays a key role. Manufacturing is next at 54 percent. Management is right behind at 52 percent. (For the other members of the team, see the full table.) And that's the way it should be. Like all new business ideas, launching a product is too risky, too complex a process to hand over to one person, or even one department.

In some of the smallest food and beverage companies, one person may wear multiple hats. I recall a visit a few years back to a small Midwestern salsa manufacturer. The head of R&D and the plant manager showed me around – that was one person, not two. The CEO/head of marketing/purchasing agent joined us later for lunch. When they were considering a new flavor of salsa, they put their heads together but also consulted employees (a.k.a. informal focus groups and/or tasting panels), as well as trusted ingredient vendors, some of which did have considerable R&D resources to lend.

That cross-functional concept, by the way, is the foundation of Food Processing. If you haven't noticed, in every issue we cover issues critical to R&D and product development but also to plant operations – as well as marketing topics and issues of concern to management up and down the organization. As the only double-horizontal magazine – covering every food and beverage category as well as every job category – we lay claim to being the industry's magazine of record, a chronicler that recognizes the unifying factors in this business, not the divisions.

But back to my point. The No. 1 R&D department goal in this year's survey was not cost-cutting, safe line extensions or cleaning up ingredient statements; it was pure new product development. This truly is the blessed event. That desire to swing for the fences also comes out in at least some of IRI's New Product Pacesetters.

While Dannon's Oikos, No. 1 on the IRI list, was a latecomer to the Greek yogurt trend, the Pacesetters list includes some real innovations, and not all of them from multibillion-dollar global companies.

Sparkling ICE combines the interesting flavors of so many carbonated soft drinks with spring water, and creator Talking Rain remains a privately held beverage company based in Preston, Wash. Daily's is a small juice company I grew up with in Pittsburgh. It made a move into drink mixes for cocktails a few years ago, but last year mixed up its own libations in single-serve pouches – a novel concept none of the big guys had tried. MiO may be from Kraft, and ConAgra is behind Orville Redenbacher's pop-up popcorn bowl, but they're true innovations, as well.

So here's to you product developers who swing for the fences. And to you companies that empower them to do so.

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